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Sleepless in DC; surviving a master's without tanking a career

6.21.2011

For several years I looked at master's programs, evaluated curriculums, read alumni comments, considered the credibility factor - and saved money. When by chance I came upon the program that finally grabbed my interest enough to get off my derriere and do something, there was no doubt - well, a smidgeon - that I would be accepted into the program. And there was no doubt I was up to the task. That was, until I received the six-book, nine-Harvard Business Review article required reading list and pre-class writing assignment, and the syllabus. That's when my heart stopped, my confidence vanished, and I thought, "Can my brain handle this level of intense learning again? Can I play in this league? What if I fail? Whose idea was this anyway?"

Too late. The first fat check had already cleared The George Washington University's bank and the reservations had been made to attend the first of many residencies requiring on-campus attendance in Washington, DC. Forward was the only option, so I had to figure out a way to maintain a 60 hour work week and add school to the package.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is direct correlation between the level of education completed, increased average earnings and lower unemployment. And 2010 U.S. Census data reflects that just over 10 percent of the US population holds an advanced degree. All this is sometimes presented as a nudge to those on the education fence. But statistics alone are rarely compelling enough to create action, as education at any level is a matter of both desire and capability. And it is such a personal thing.

If you are considering pursuing an advanced degree and wondering how to make it through, here are some survival tips from the trenches:

1. Know that, yes, you can do it...if you really want to. Passion to learn is crucial. And you have to do it for yourself. No one else.

2. Plan to work really, really hard. My head hurt so much sometimes from concentrating intensely for such extended periods of time that I thought surely it would explode. No explosion occurred.

3. Establish a schedule and stick to it. If you don't, it's a fire drill. And when traveling for work, forget the in-flight movie. You'll need every moment in the air and evenings in hotel rooms to fit it all in.

4. Don't plan on getting a lot of sleep. Your head will bob for a while but you'll get your second wind about 2:00 a.m. I recall the weekend morning I got up at 6:00 a.m., hit the button on the coffee pot and sat on the couch to wait for it to brew. I awoke at 8:30 a.m. - sitting straight up.

5. Try to do things in organized segments...and just plan for a crunch at the end. This is true for both individual projects and team projects. You learn a lot about people when they work together under intense stress.

6. Don't plan a lot of vacation time - unless it is spent working on school projects. You can't relax anyway, thinking of all that has to be done.

7. DON'T QUIT! From a personal standpoint, gearing up again (mentally, physically, monetarily) will not be easy, according to friends of mine who have done so. And from a professional standpoint - and the viewpoint of an executive recruiter - "27 hours toward 'X' degree" doesn't count.

8. DO plan to make some friends for life. The whole cohort experience of living, eating, breathing (during residencies) and experiencing stress and triumph as a team creates bonds unlike those created during your undergraduate experience. And your professional paths will cross again.

If you decide to pursue a graduate degree, I hope for you the personal and professional support I experienced. (Your family, friends, and colleagues know you will be normal again, later.) And while the feeling of turning in that last paper is exhilarating, it is minor compared to walking across the stage when your name is announced and, for me, it paled in comparison to watching the keynote speech with the US Capitol in the background. (GWU is the only university allowed to hold graduation ceremonies on the National Mall.)

 

And to all of you with more than one graduate degree, my hat is off to you. I'm not sure I can do this again. At least, not just yet.

Master's in Law Firm Management, The George Washington University, 2011. Done.

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